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Smoke like an Egyptian

Sep 22nd 2005 | AUSTIN
From The Economist print edition

Mint, cappuccino or kiwi-strawberry?

Hubble bubble, no toil or trouble

AT THE Hookup Lounge near the University of Texas (UT), 20-somethings loll about, some encased in plumes of smoke. But they are not snogging, yet. In true academic spirit, they are learning the ways of another culture??and passing around a hookah pipe. ??I normally smoke cigarettes, but it's kind of nice not having to get up and go outside,?? says Jon Faviell, who is trying to get into graduate school at UT. He is sharing a mint pipe with a friend.

Alas for Austinites, there are now fewer hookah places to puff. At the beginning of this month, a city-wide smoking ban went into effect. Smoking indoors in public areas is now mostly restricted to the likes of nursing homes and bingo halls. The Hookup Lounge (named for its, ahem, wireless access) survives because it is classed as a retail tobacco store (the bulk of its sales being derived from tobacco products). But one downtown Austin bar, the Red Fez, no longer offers hookah. Another, One2One, is opening up new patio space to keep patrons puffing; on the night before the ban it sportingly offered free hookahs until midnight.

Hookahs used to be associated with marijuana, opium dens and progressive rock (or that's what we vaguely remember). But legitimate hookah bars started appearing in California in the late 1990s, and, despite the anti-smoking surge, they are booming, especially in college towns.

Brennan Appel of SouthSmoke.com, a hookah-merchandise supplier, reckons that there are now several thousand bars and lounges (nobody in the hookah trade is that great on specific numbers). Jonathan Fair of One2One theorises that Lewis Carroll's ??Alice in Wonderland??, in which a shrunken Alice meets a water-pipe-smoking caterpillar, has had something to do with it.

Despite its Middle Eastern pretensions, American hookah is not quite like the Egyptian kind. American pipes often have several hoses??the better to serve a big table??as against a single hose in the Middle East. The products are also sleeker and more modern-looking, with fewer beads. And then there are the flavours: where Egyptians might opt for simple grape or melon, Americans like to mix and match, with flavours like kiwi-strawberry or blueberry-raspberry??or even cappuccino.

Some hooksters claim that the water-pipes are healthier than cigarettes: even though hookah also involves puffing on flavoured tobacco, the water acts as a filter. Moreover, second-hand smoke is limited: one puff quickly dissipates.

Rubbish, say doctors. ??There's really little if any filtration being accomplished by passing the tobacco smoke through the water,?? says Ron Davis, a trustee of the American Medical Association. ??There's no reason to believe that smoking through water-pipes is any less hazardous than smoking cigarettes.?? In fact, he notes, the girth of the water pipes allows smokers to take bigger puffs than on cigarettes. And don't even get him started on drugs.

None of this deters the hookah crowd. And tactics for getting around the smoking bans are evolving. In Manhattan, plenty of places get classified as tobacco bars and so avoid New York's 2003 ban. Joseph Melamed of the Gypsy Caf?? in Westwood, California, has another strategy. He says that California's smoking ban was enacted to protect employees, not patrons (who can choose to boycott the bar). So he has taken advantage of an exemption for owner-operated bars with no employees, and made his employees part-owners. The gods of Egypt must be smiling.